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Books to Movies: Imaginary and Constructed Mise en scènes

Books to Movies: Imaginary and Constructed Mise en scènes

By Harleen Kaur Bagga

Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist

For people who love to read, books present the most wonderful vehicle for switching off the mundane and morbid troubles of the world and cruising into an alternate reality. When you read, you are part of the narrative – silent participant in an omniscient sketch or the protagonist himself in the first-person accounts. This magnificent inclusion in the story where you identify with the proceedings on a personal level, delving deeper and deeper into the constructed world of the writer is perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the reading-experience. However, movies, whether original or adapted, involve people as spectators. You still navigate through the tumultuous journeys of the narrative but the experience is no longer personal, instead manifesting as an intricate web of the workings and interpretations of many more people – the scriptwriter, the director, the costumier, the cast, and props.

The rich narrative tableaux that both the mediums present are then inevitably different. However, it would be an over-simplification to claim that one tells while the other shows, for literature has, since the nineteenth century, adopted techniques of both showing and telling, diluting hitherto strong authorial interventions.

From Shakespeare and Gone With the Wind to Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Fault in Our Stars, the cinematic world is infused with adaptations. There are some, like Game of Thrones, The Devil Wears Prada, Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and perhaps Slumdog Millionaire, which generate an equally, if not more, vibrant response from viewers. However, others, like The Golden Compass and The Great Gatsby along with many more, do not enjoy the celebrated success of their literary sources. Yet, despite the variegated outcomes, these texts, already established in the market with an incandescent fanfare, offer a highly lucrative source for movie-producers who tap into this success and draw audiences. Adaptations beget profits for both the mediums, increasing awareness and attracting a motley of people.

Many people believe that the major criterion for judging an adaptation is its fidelity to the original. The more authentically illustrated the novel, the better the movie. However, reading is a highly personal experience and different people generate different imageries, colours and environments which when prove incompatible with the created adaptation, lead to disappointment. This “correct” version which the script violates or adheres to is thus a product of idiosyncratic fantasies, which do not in any way, present satisfactory analyses.

Adapting a book into a movie is a massive task. Sometimes, a writer may himself adapt his novel into a script, like John Irving did with The Cider House Rules. However, primarily, screenwriters are furnished with this enterprise. The sheer difficulty of this endeavour should not be underestimated as the screenwriter is made to navigate through another writer’s creative world, enjoying way lesser freedom, analogous to an intrusive alien.

I recently read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and watched the film-adaptation, titled Dorian Gray. Needless to say, the movie was drastically different from the novel, effortlessly plummeting the extremely high expectations that I had piled upon it. I experienced almost the same thing with Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go. However, for someone who watches the movies without reading the novels, the visual experience turns out to be fairly different.

Audience expectations then, along with an inherent need to compare, characterize increasingly the critique of adaptations. Nevertheless, the employment of different plot strategies which recast the sequence needs to be underlined. The book’s linear narrative can be altered to produce fragmented bits, changing the way the story unravels. This takes away control from the viewer. When you read, you proceed in a structured manner, moving from word to word, even if the story throws you into a jumbled maze. Yet, with visual images dancing across the screen, the spectator is inundated with a diverse variety of stimuli which demand attention.

Some adaptations thus deliberately tamper with the original source, creating another work of art altogether while some borrow basic ideas and adapt them to contemporary changes – 10 Things I Hate About You being a modern rendition of Taming of the Shrew. The fidelity theory then, operating on personal substrata, turns out to be a flimsy sheen of critique which only throws one medium against the other, declaring the supremacy of the literary source due to its older status. What needs to be considered though is the immense intertextuality of the mediums. Thus, instead of solely concentrating on the merits of the source-novel, this intertextual play needs to be considered while analysing adaptations by taking up texts that precede and follow the novel.

Harleen  is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at [email protected].

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